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Peter Miller’s Blog

California Renewable Energy Wishes for 2014

Peter Miller

Posted January 7, 2014 in Solving Global Warming

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With the start of the New Year, it’s a good time to review the state’s substantial progress under the California Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) – one of the world’s most ambitious renewable energy programs – and how we can get more electricity generated from clean, renewable energy resources in 2014 and beyond.

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By 2020, fully one-third of California’s electricity sales must come from renewable sources like solar and wind. Hitting that goal will create enough clean energy to power nearly 9 million homes – an immense achievement as California continues to chart a clean energy future.

The doubters said it couldn’t be done – that utilities would never be able to reach significant RPS targets. But the California Public Utilities Commission has determined that the three largest investor-owned utilities already have met the 20 percent standard and are on track to meet the goal of generating 33 percent of the state’s electricity from renewable energy resources. Last year, nearly 3,000 megawatts of new renewable energy capacity came on line to serve California’s electricity needs.

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Long-term goals for clean energy

Given the long lead times for new energy infrastructure, it makes sense to begin to look beyond 2020 – the date by which California must reduce its carbon emissions to 1990 levels under the state’s clean energy AB 32 Global Warming Solutions Act – and consider what comes next as it works to further cut emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

As a recent study from LBNL showed, our long-term climate goals are achievable, though they will require sustained effort for decades, including continued investment in new renewable and low-carbon energy resources. 

The California Legislature’s adoption of renewable energy benchmarks and timetables was essential to the enormous progress we celebrate today. California's energy agencies have also made significant strides in improving their practices, driven by the sometimes-competing imperatives of reliability, affordability, and environmental performance. Most importantly, improved consideration of all the options available to meet our energy needs can increase the state's ability to achieve all three objectives simultaneously through investments in energy efficiency – doing more work with less energy.

Over the long-term, our objective should be a framework that supports investment in a balanced portfolio of low- and zero-carbon resources such as wind, solar and low-impact hydroelectric power without benchmarks and timetables specifically targeted to particular energy sources. Both the economy and environment benefit when markets compete to meet rigorous cost and performance standards established to achieve societal goals.

Six New Year’s wishes

            With an eye to our long-term objectives, I'd like to offer the following six New Year's wishes for clean energy in California in 2014:

1.        We have already made substantial progress toward the goal of an integrated procurement framework. A renewables benchmark higher than 33 percent for 2025 or 2030 should advance this progress by incorporating increased flexibility and continued development of regulatory and market mechanisms that support competitive procurement of high-value, low-carbon resources. The best way to get to an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions should be based on both the cost and environmental performance of future technologies. We don’t know, for example, if solar/wind paired with storage and demand response will be a better choice than carbon emissions capture and storage (CCS) in 2050 and we shouldn’t try to specify the outcome now.

2.        We should continue to use a portfolio of policies and programs to achieve our long-term climate goals, including programs targeted at both local, on-site “distributed” generation and utility-scale clean energy projects. Programs like the renewable auction mechanism should be improved and expanded. A next- generation net energy metering program should be developed based on the requirements of AB327 to establish a fair and sustainable regulatory framework for solar distributed generation that accounts for the value to the grid as well as for the customer’s cost of grid services. NRDC has offered an approach that is based on a variable demand charge, but we’re open to other options.

3.        We need to improve our ability to integrate renewable energy resources into our electricity grid. This will require new and improved planning approaches, operational strategies, and market mechanisms at local and regional levels.  Perhaps the most promising opportunity lies in using energy efficiency, storage, and demand response to reshape the load curve.

4.        Greater regional coordination can also help integrate and balance renewable resources through the development of a balanced portfolio of resources with diverse characteristics. This will help lower costs and increase reliability. More broadly, development of a more coordinated and efficient electricity market is key to making long-term emissions reductions across the western region of the country.

5.        As California increases its use of wind, solar and geothermal resources, the responsible siting of those projects becomes even more important. Local, state and federal agencies have made meaningful progress in coordination and long-term planning of siting to minimize land-use conflicts, such as the development of renewable energy zones that focus development in low-impact areas and lower transmission costs. It is imperative that these efforts continue and succeed.

6.        Finally, transmission should be planned and developed to facilitate the optimal blend of both in-state and region-wide renewable energy resources. We believe that the best path forward is transmission that offers multiple benefits to the grid – minimizing total costs, improving access to pumped hydroelectric storage, opening new areas such as the Central Valley, providing access to low-cost renewable generation from across the West, and providing geographic diversity so that resources can be backed up by renewable energy from elsewhere.

We have much to celebrate as we review our clean energy achievements over the past year. But the challenges -- and opportunities -- ahead are even greater.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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